A matter of injustice

November 29, 2012

Three murder cases in the news recently would seem to have little in common. Michael Morton is a Texas pharmacist convicted in 1986 of murdering his wife. Jeffrey MacDonald is the Princeton- and Yale-educated Green Beret medical doctor in prison for the 1972 murder of his wife and two small children. The “West Memphis Three” are the teenagers convicted of the 1993 killing of three boys in Arkansas.

One aspect all these cases share, however, is the inordinate attention paid to them. Next month, for example, “West of Memphis,” a documentary produced by Oscar-winner Peter Jackson, opens ‑ at least the third film about the case. As for MacDonald, adding to the stack of books and hours of television already devoted to him, the celebrated documentary filmmaker Errol Morris recently weighed in with a 500-page book, “A Wilderness of Error,” arguing that MacDonald was “railroaded” by “unethical” prosecutors. Morton’s case, meanwhile, has been featured on “60 Minutesand NPR’s “Weekend Edition” as well as in a New York Times editorial and a recent Times op-ed column by Joe Nocera.

Something is amiss when you compare the media’s fixation on these cases with that of Edward Lee Elmore, a South Carolina man who served 25 30 years for a crime he did not commit. There have been no editorials, no “60 Minutes” reports and, most disturbingly, no investigations. Yet the evidence of prosecutorial misconduct makes what happened to Elmore look far more egregious.

Elmore was sent to death row at age 23 and spent more than half his life there, convicted for the murder of a 75-year-old widow in Greenwood, South Carolina.

Morton was released last year, after 25 years in prison, when his lawyers found exonerating evidence that the police and prosecution had withheld at the time of his trial. He was falsely convicted, his lawyers said, as the result of a “sin of omission.” Similarly, in the West Memphis Three case, the police and prosecutors ignored evidence that the three men were innocent. (They were released last year in a legal agreement that allowed them to maintain their innocence while pleading guilty.)

Under the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brady v. Maryland, the prosecution is required to turn over all potentially exonerating evidence to the defense.

But withholding evidence is benign compared to what happened with Elmore, who was convicted through acts of commission. The prosecution didn’t just withhold exculpatory material ‑ there is proof that police and investigators manufactured and planted critical evidence.

They claimed, for example, to have found Elmore’s pubic hair on the victim’s bed. Yet the investigators didn’t take any pictures of the bed, nor did they take the sheets as evidence, because “there were no obvious blood or other stains present,” as an investigator later testified at a hearing.

The wall and carpet in the victim’s bedroom were soaked in blood, as was the robe she was wearing. Yet only three pinprick-size blood spots were found on Elmore’s jeans, which the police took from his bedroom. Like the “hairs on the bed,” there is strong evidence that this blood was planted.

One investigator removed the jeans from the evidence locker and had them for two weeks, without any legitimate reason. He wasn’t assigned to the case at the time ‑ but had grown up across the street from the victim and was convinced Elmore was guilty.

Writing  on the Elmore case, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals used the words “outright dishonest” and “deceit” to describe the work of the police and investigators.

Those are uncharacteristically harsh rebukes. When federal judges use language like that, the Justice Department might be expected to launch an investigation or the United States attorney in South Carolina to convene a grand jury.

Maybe they haven’t, in part, because there has been no public outcry. Where are the editorial writers and columnists or even the celebrities who spoke up for the West Memphis Three and Morton?

This raises an uncomfortable question. Another thing Morton, MacDonald and the West Memphis Three have in common: They are all white. And Morton and Macdonald are both educated professionals. Elmore, however, is a semi-literate, mentally disabled black handyman.

A “Freedom Fund” has been set up to provide financial support for the West Memphis 3 as they adjust to life beyond prison. Elmore, who was released in February – still maintaining his innocence but agreeing to plead guilty as part of a legal agreement to get out of prison after 30 years for a crime he didn’t commit – now lives in poverty in rural South Carolina.

If America has true equality under the law, then the Justice Department should not be waiting until civic leaders or celebrities take up a cause before investigating. The United States attorney in South Carolina should convene a grand jury to look into the Elmore case – to begin to deliver some real justice.


PHOTO: Edward Lee Elmore being led into the Greenwood County courtroom for a hearing in December 2000. WSPA





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If America has true equality under the law…..

Well, that explains it, doesn’t it.

Posted by Greenspan2 | Report as abusive

So far, then, the actual murderer of Dorothy Ely Edwards, the elderly victim in this case, has gone free, unless, in the meantime, he (assuming the murderer was male) has been convicted and punished for another crime of similar severity. Even if the actual murderer were still alive and finally charged with the crime today, nearly 31 years after the murder, it would be hard to argue that either public protection or justice had been well served. In such cases as these, the injustice suffered by the wrongly convicted is compounded with the injustice of ensuring that the guilty party will remain free from pursuit and thus free to continue prying upon the public. It seems like institutionalized accessory to murder.

Posted by MoBioph | Report as abusive

Maybe this article will help. I hope so.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

I’m not sure why the MacDonald case is listed here; I’ve never before heard that he was considered innocent by some. MacDonald’s case ran through the legal system for some nine years, and regardless of possible Brady violations—such violations are frequently, though inexcusably, the only way that “legitimate” convictions are obtained—MacDonald surely murdered his wife and two daughters. The precise, surgical wound he suffered was made with a scalpel-sharp “weapon”, notable for its non-lethal placement; Dr. MacDonald was, after all, a Princeton-trained physician. The wound is universally accepted to have been self-inflicted.

One point Mr. Bonner makes is right on the money. The attention paid to the case of the West Memphis Three (though not to their victims) was, and continues to be, “inordinate.” A rational person, one who isn’t caught up in the hype of three HBO documentaries (the Paradise Lost Series), one independent documentary (West of Memphis, a film by Amy Berg and Peter Jackson, one that dubiously credits Damien Echols and wife Lorri Davis as “producers”), and the upcoming film version of Mara Leveritt’s Devil’s Knot (directed by Atom Egoyan and starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth), would be able to see the smoke and mirrors propaganda for what it is.

The facts are clear. None of the three killers had alibis. One, okay. Two, perhaps. But all three? Jessie Misskelley’s alibi was destroyed by the prosecution at trial. (The details are in my book, Untying the Knot: John Mark Byers and the West Memphis Three.) The other two didn’t even offer alibis at trial. In 2009, at Jason Baldwin’s Rule 37 hearing, his former attorney Paul Ford stated that if Baldwin had had an alibi that would stand up in court, he would have offered it.

There’s also the matter of Damien Echols’s black trench coat. Even a casual observer, if they knew nothing else about Echols, would have known that come winter or summer, Echols wore his beloved trench coat virtually everywhere he went. Police should have considered it supremely important to find that coat; there was a better than even chance that Echols was wearing it the night of the murders. So where is it? On the stand Echols said he didn’t know. “My parents must have it.” There is no record of the police searching for this critical piece of evidence, and its disappearance was, to say the least, convenient.

Though admittedly troublesome, Jessie Misskelley’s four confessions must be given great weight. He had many facts wrong, but more important are those he added. For example, he told police during his initial confession that he had actually chased down Michael Moore and brought him back to Echols and Baldwin (Moore’s murder was considered premeditated by the court). This was a strange detail to include without prompting, and was one which in Misskelley’s mind seemed exculpatory (“Michael, uh, Moore took off running, so I chased him and grabbed him and held him, till they got there and then I left [emphasis added]).

Further, he told his attorney, Dan Stidham, and Prosecutor Brent Davis on February 17, 1994—just after his conviction on one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder—that he witnessed the victims being thrown in the creek (all three boys were bound with shoelaces), and that one victim was “moving like a worm.” In other words, he was still alive when he was placed in the water. This is consistent with the findings of the medical examiner that two of the victims had water in their lungs, proof that they were still breathing (though barely) when they were tossed into the ditch. This detail provided by Misskelley also has the sound of being made by someone who saw it happening.

It’s time that we understand the case of the West Memphis Three in light of the facts, not through the lens of celebrities and their fans.

Greg Day
Author Untying the Knot: John Mark Byers and the West Memphis Three

Posted by GregCDay | Report as abusive

1. This article is replete with factual errors on the WM3 case and the MacDonald case. If I were to include a case, I would at the very least strive to get the date of the murders right- It was February 17, 1970, as an example.

2. The WM3 are all enjoying triple murder convictions via Alford plea or if they screamed “I effing did it you idiots” in the street. Which, btw, I have heard Miskelley does daily.

I don’t like to see this kind of poor research or bias on reuters.

Posted by blinkoncrime | Report as abusive

The belief that Dr. MacDonald, (or anyone) would stab himself in the chest is a bogus one set forth by army investigators. It’s funny how being a doctor is another reason that would point to his being guilty (the army would want you to believe.) It is not “universally accepted”, Dr. MacDonald had to have two operations on his chest and spent 9 days in ICU. There was never a motive for him to commit this crime no matter what the army, Joe McGinniss or Bob Stevenson would like you to think. The crime scene was a complete mess and the investigation was botched. Prosecutors Jim Blackburn and Brian Murtagh withheld evidence that could have cleared Dr. MacDonald of this crime. The army illegally pursued Dr. MacDonald when he was released from the army and told Freddy Kassab untruthful stories to get him to change his mind about Dr. MacDonald. I look forward to the day when he will be cleared like Michael Morton and hope the prosecutors in his trial will also have to pay.

Posted by tarapatricia | Report as abusive

Isn’t it amazing? Prosecutors are so sure of their convictions, yet in the Morton and MacDonald cases, prosecutors have fought the defendant’s right to test DNA evidence, and have kept them in prison for many more years. What are they are afraid of if they were so sure of Morton’s and MacDonald’s guilt? Cover up, anyone?

Posted by tarapatricia | Report as abusive